My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I really wanted to love this book. As a current Johns Hopkins graduate student, I spent two weeks in 2018 traveling around Baltimore getting to know its history and its people. I learned so much as a student and I was thrilled to grab an advanced copy of this book in hopes of learning a bit more about the city and the history of the university that calls Baltimore home. Alas, it was not to be.
It’s difficult to write a book about a man who destroyed all of his papers and correspondence. I get that. However, Antero Pietila tries to cover a Johns Hopkins the man, Johns Hopkins the University, and Johns Hopkins as the city of Baltimore. It’s just too great a swath of time and place to discuss well. Rather than a succinct history of a person, place, or time, Pietila has left us with a rambling narrative that only briefly touches on Johns Hopkins the man but also highlights struggles in funding a university, Civil War strife, grave robbing, building various railroads, race riots, mobs, and more. It’s incredibly difficult to follow as time jumps from the 1700s to the 1920s to the 1850s and back again. I often wasn’t sure who was being profiled or what century I was even in anymore.
While there are some really interesting bits of information (the part on Arabbers and the history of rent-to-own homes were fascinating) the book is just so difficult to follow and tedious to read that I quickly lost interest. For those who have an intimate knowledge of Baltimore, very little in the book will be a revelation. Most importantly, this book isn’t really about Johns Hopkins at all but an overarching view of the history of the university with a greater focus on the city of Baltimore.
It’s not often that I don’t finish a book, particularly an advanced copy, but this one is going to sit on the “to finish” shelf for a bit longer.